Friday, July 22, 2016

Two Old Debates

Chipsters have not written much about the current political season in the United States because the subject — it seems to us — calls more for the artistry of Fellini than any rational analysis.  Hillary (Armani) Clinton calls to mind The Ecclesiastical Fashion Show whereas Donald (Blowhard) Trump makes us think of Trimalchio’s Banquet.

The United States is clearly in its political decadence and that is the only fact that is really important.  The rest is a point de d├ętail. 

Idling on details, we have wondered over the past month which analog from the ancient world best suits the present season.  Didius Julianus and Flavius Claudius perhaps?

“After the murder of Pertinax (28 March 193), the Praetorian assassins announced that the throne was to be sold to the man who would pay the highest price. Titus Flavius Claudius Sulpicianus, prefect of the city, father-in-law of the murdered emperor, being at that moment in the camp to which he had been sent to calm the troops, began making offers, whereupon Julianus, having been roused from a banquet by his wife and daughter, arrived in all haste, and being unable to gain admission, stood before the gate, and with a loud voice competed for the prize.   Julianus outbid his rival.  The guards immediately closed with the offer of Julianus, threw open the gates, saluted him by the name of Caesar, and proclaimed him emperor."

The difficulty with that analogy, though, is that, in the current season, the determinant is which candidate receives the most money from the Praetorians of the Economy.

So our mind ruminated on two dialogues from Thucydides.

Language, Aristotle observes, is what enables politics because it is through words that men can “decide between the expedient and the inexepedient; the just and the unjust.”  (Politics, Bk. 2.)

Future historians will no doubt trace the decline of U.S. politics to the advent of cereal ads.  For those ads, like some horrible narcotic, aimed to reduce the hard edge of critical faculties to mush.  And in this they succeeded.  What passes for “discourse” in the United States is simply the howl of appetite and the shriek of fear.  Animals, Aristotle would say, can do as much.

The progression from dialogue to howling was something that afflicted Athens during her convulsive decline.  Thucydides noted the points on the graph.

What is known as the Mitylenean Debate was the first of these points.    Mytilene was an island city state allied to Athens in the Delian League - a kind of Athenian NATO, composed of tributary democracies.  An exception to the rule, Mytilene was ruled by an oligarchy and was a non-tribute paying member of the League.  In short, Mytilene was a truly independent state.

It is important to bear in mind that what is called the Peloponnesian War was as much a war between classes (and their political systems) as it was between states, as such.   For reasons which can only be conjectured, the oligarchs of Mytilene decided that an alliance with Sparta would be more to their benefit than remaining in the Delian League.  So they “revolted” (as the Athenians considered it).

Athens besieged Mytilene and starved it into surrender. The Spartan general on the scene was taken prisoner and executed on the spot. Ambassadors of the oligarchy were taken to Athens where they were allowed to plead for mercy before the Athenian Assembly.   The Assembly was tone deaf.

Whipped into a fearful fury by the populist Cleon (“the most violent man in Athens”), the Assembly passed a sentence of death on the entire city.  All the men were to be killed, the city razed to the ground and the women and children sold into slavery.  A naval ship was dispatched to carry out the orders.

The following morning, as if with a hang-over, the Athenians suffered doubts about what they had done. They convoked a second assembly to reconsider the matter.

Cleon berated them with being soft, bleeding hearts, more interested in fancy words than in sticking to their real-politik interests.  “No one state has ever injured you as much as Mitylene,” he cried. Theirs was a "deliberate and wanton aggression; an attempt to ruin us by siding with our bitterest enemies!"      As for the people of Mytilene, “they thought it safer to throw in their lot with the aristocracy and so joined their rebellion!”    If Mytilene was not punished, who would be the next to revolt?    "We meanwhile shall have to risk our money and our lives against one state after another."

"No hope, therefore, that rhetoric may instill or money purchase, the mercy due to human infirmity must be held out to the Mitylenians. Their offence was not involuntary, but born of malice and deliberate; and mercy is only for unwilling offenders. I therefore, now as before, persist against your reversing your first decision, or giving way to the three failings most fatal to empire—pity, sentiment, and indulgence. Compassion is due to those who can reciprocate the feeling, not to those who will never pity us in return."

A speaker called Diodotus reminded the Athenians that "haste and anger are... the two greatest obstacles to wise counsel....    He began by addressing Cleon’s egg-head ad homs.

The Pynx

"As for the argument that speech ought not to be the exponent of action, the man who uses it must be either senseless or interested: senseless if he believes it possible to treat of the uncertain future through any other medium; interested if, wishing to carry a disgraceful measure and doubting his ability to speak well in a bad cause, he thinks to frighten opponents and hearers by well-aimed calumny.  ...  Thus it is that plain good advice has thus come to be no less suspected than bad."

As for the fate deserved by the Mityleneans,

"Though I prove them ever so guilty, I shall not, therefore, advise their death, unless it be expedient; nor though they should have claims to indulgence, shall I recommend it, unless it be dearly for the good of the country. I consider that we are deliberating for the future more than for the present; and where Cleon is so positive as to the useful deterrent effects that will follow from making rebellion capital, I, who consider the interests of the future quite as much as he, as positively maintain the contrary...
"All, states and individuals, are alike prone to err, and there is no law that will prevent them; or why should men have exhausted the list of punishments in search of enactments to protect them from evildoers  ... The penalty of death has been by degrees in most cases arrived at, which is itself disregarded in like manner. Either then some means of terror more terrible than this must be discovered...
"We must not, therefore, commit ourselves to a false policy through a belief in the efficacy of the punishment of death, or exclude rebels from the hope of repentance and an early atonement of their error.

"Only consider what a blunder you would commit in doing as Cleon recommends. As things are at present, in all the cities the people is your friend, and either does not revolt with the oligarchy, or, if forced to do so, becomes at once the enemy of the insurgents; so that in the war with the hostile city you have the masses on your side. But if you butcher the people of Mitylene, who had nothing to do with the revolt, and who, as soon as they got arms, of their own motion surrendered the town, first you will commit the crime of killing your benefactors; and next you will play directly into the hands of the higher classes, who when they induce their cities to rise, will immediately have the people on their side."

On this morning, the counsels of Diodotus won the day. The Athenians repented their rashness and revoked their previous resolution.  Oh, but woe!  Such had been their fury and haste that the death-bearing ship had already set sail.

Thucydides relates: "Another galley was at once sent off in haste, for fear that the first might reach Lesbos in the interval, and the city be found destroyed; the first ship having about a day and a night's start. Wine and barley-cakes were provided for the vessel by the Mitylenian ambassadors, and great promises made if they arrived in time; which caused the men to use such diligence upon the voyage that they took their meals of barley-cakes kneaded with oil and wine as they rowed, and only slept by turns while the others were at the oar. Luckily they met with no contrary wind, and the first ship making no haste upon so horrid an errand, while the second pressed on in the manner described, the first arrived so little before them, that Paches had only just had time to read the decree, and to prepare to execute the sentence, when the second put into port and prevented the massacre. The danger of Mitylene had indeed been great."

On of history's biggest "wheeeww's"

What is noteworthy, though, is that Diodotus did not make a Christian argument founded on humanity and tempered justice. Such arguments are entirely absent in Thucydides’ work.  There was, I am sure, some protean sense of horror at the thought of genociding the Mityleneans, but the argument Diodotus made was grounded entirely in political expedience.   It was actually Cleon who was making the “justice-based” argument. 

In the Republic, the then prevalent concept of “justice” was recited by a young man called Polus.  “Oh, Socrates,” he replied when asked, “that’s easy: justice is doing good to one’s friends and harm to one’s enemies.

That was exactly what Cleon was demanding.  The only determinant here is measuring the degrees of “tit” and “tat.”  In Cleon’s view the revolt against the peace and (most importantly) against the dignity of Athens was the ne plus ultra of all offenses which required (in the name of justice) the ne plus ultra of all retaliations.

Diodotus’ counter-argument — that death penalties don’t work; that killing your friends to spite your enemies doesn’t make sense — made practical sense but they were not grounded in what are today commonplace concepts of a justice based on shared humanity and humility as in "what shall I be pleading when the just are mercy needing?" (Dies Irae)

It would behoove all the anti-christians in the crowd to stake stock and remember the evolution in consciousness that Christianity represented.

As for the rest of us, it is worth noting how current the structure of the debate remains today.  Trump’s is the voice of angry justice a la Cleon.  Hillary’s is the voice of calculated and self-interested expedience.  The problem with that dichotomy is that ultimately it is a false distinction because the well-spring for both is simply egoism. 

The denouement of a tenuous and spurious distinction is shown in the Melian Dialogue.

A decade after the Mitylenean affair, Athens invaded the island of Melos.  Just like that.  It was a pure neo-con “preemptive defense” kind of thing.  The Athenians demanded that Melos submit and pay tribute or be destroyed.

The Melians answered: why should we?

The Athenians replied: "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

The Melians argued that they were a neutral city and not an enemy, so Athens had no need to conquer them.

The Athenians countered that if they accepted Melos' neutrality and independence, they would look weak: people would think they spared Melos because they were not strong enough to conquer it.  “We are more concerned about islanders like yourselves, who are still unsubdued, or subjects who have already become embittered by the constraint which our empire imposes on them.

To this the Melians answered : Nevertheless we trust that the gods will give us fortune as good as yours, because we are standing for what is right against what is wrong.

To which the Athenans replied: So far as the favour of the gods is concerned, we think we have as much right to that as you have. Our aims and our actions are perfectly consistent with the beliefs men hold about the gods and with the principles which govern their own conduct. Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can. This is not a law that we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made. We found it already in existence, and we shall leave it to exist for ever among those who come after us. We are merely acting in accordance with it."

The dialogue broke off and the Athenians laid siege.  The Melians resisted valiantly and even made some incursions against the invader.

Thucydides relates: “As a result of this, another force came out afterwards from Athens under the command of Philocrates, the son of Demeas. Siege operations were now carried on vigorously and, as there was also some treachery from inside, the Melians surrendered unconditionally to the Athenians, who put to death all the men of military age whom they took, and sold the women and children as slaves.

There is an evident progression and similarity between the two debates.  The difference is that in the Mitylenean debate it is ego (self love and self interest) which underlies the concepts of justice and expedience.  Cleon wanted to exercise power to vindicate “ourselves” whereas Didotus wanted to moderate power to promote "our" self interest.  In the Melian dialogue, power ends up consuming both — power is justice and its exercise is expedient  -- always because.

Although the Mitylenean debate involved a contest between rival justifications, these masked a latent kernel of brutish selfishhness which slowly festered until in the Melian dialogue it burst forth in a torrent of unapologetic brutality.   

Historical analogies are always a perilous business. But it does seem to us that all the current blather about how Trump is Hitler or represents a replay of 1933 is just a lot of hysterical and uniformed nonsense.  The NSDAP's principal plank in 1930-1933 concerned stimulating the economy and providing Germans with economic justice and security.  If anyone bothered to read Hitler’s speeches, they would find that as often as not he sounded more like Bernie than Trump.

The more instructive analogy concerns the progression of speech (logos) into howling and snarling; for whereas the essence of Trump is to bellow and bay, the essence of Hillary is micro-aggressive  self-promotion.   Trump's is the voice of retaliatory justice a la Polus and Cleon -- us contra mundum.   Hillary does not dispute the exceptionalist preeminence  of "us" she merely calculates how to promote oligarchical self-interest at the expense of the rest of the world.   Either will end up producing some shameful disaster.